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Several days ago, a friend sent me a link to a story concerning Pastor Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

Right now, it may be the biggest story in the Christian community.

For many years, Willow Creek was the largest church in the United States, and is now sixth-largest.

If you haven’t yet read the story, here’s a link to the Christianity Today website:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/march/bill-hybels-misconduct-willow-creek-john-nancy-ortberg.html

The story also hit the pages of the Chicago Tribune:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-willow-creek-pastor-20171220-story.html

In a nutshell, the story states that Hybels – one of the most influential Christian leaders of his generation – has been accused by several women of “a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct.”

To my knowledge, no one claims today that Hybels engaged in sexual intercourse with them.  Several years ago, one woman confided in a top Willow Creek leader that Hybels had a “prolonged consensual affair” with her lasting more than a decade, but she has since written a full retraction, confessing that she “wanted to tear [Bill] and Willow down and get it out of my system.”

But several other women have accused Hybels of “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms.”

Charges first surfaced in April 2014, and Hybels has undergone two separate investigations since that time: an initial investigation by the elders of his church, and a second investigation by Jeffrey Fowler, an outside, independent investigator.

Hybels is due to retire in six months, and has already named a successor as lead pastor and another person as teaching pastor.

I have read everything I could about this story, including the Christianity Today story above, the Chicago Tribune story, and the written and video statements from Pam Orr, the elder chair at Willow, and Hybels himself.  You can find them here:

https://www.willowcreek.org/en/willow-creek-response-to-local-media

I’ve also read comments from the above stories, as well as many comments on Facebook and Twitter.

For many years, I was an advocate of Willow Creek’s approach to church ministry:

*I attended four conferences at the church between 1990 and 2006.

*I pastored a seeker-driven church in Silicon Valley for many years.  During my tenure there, our church sent twenty-two leaders to Willow Creek for training.

*My last three churches were all members of the Willow Creek Association.

*Although I met Bill Hybels once, he would not remember me.

However … I’ve never been enamored with everything Willow does, and have sometimes found myself perplexed or even upset about some of their policies.

But Willow Creek has always been known for its authenticity and transparency, and it’s the single trait I most admire about the church.

I believe that both Hybels and Willow’s elders have handled this situation in as transparent a fashion as possible.  In both investigations, Hybels was asked to turn over his personal technology devices (which were forensically examined), his emails (many of which were automatically deleted from Willow’s server), personal financial records, personal church records, his calendar, and travel records.

How many pastors could survive such scrutiny?

Some pastors would have resigned before any investigation started so their life wouldn’t be exposed.  Still other pastors might have confessed their wrongdoing before an investigation demonstrated their guilt.

But Hybels endured two thorough investigations, and according to Willow’s elders, did not lead or influence either one.

And let me say … as someone who was once investigated for several days … each day feels like a month.

Jeffrey Fowler, the outside investigator, told the Chicago Tribune: “After looking at thousands of documents, after interviewing 29 people, and doing as much as I possibly could, I concluded that there was no basis for believing that Pastor Hybels had engaged in a pattern and practice of misconduct, and to the extent any specific incident had been raised with me, I concluded that his actions in those instances were not inappropriate.”

But this has not satisfied some of Willow’s former staff members.

The names that keep being mentioned are John and Nancy Ortberg and Jim and Leanne Mellado.  Assuming they are the two couples mentioned in the discussions about Hybels, I’ll just call them The Group.

But John Ortberg is the most prominent leader of the “opposition.”

John Ortberg was a teaching pastor at Willow for many years.  He is presently the lead pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I’ve heard Ortberg speak at a church he pastored in Diamond Bar, California nearly thirty years ago and again at Willow in 1994.  I also had lunch with Ortberg’s predecessor fifteen years ago, so I have some familiarity with his ministry.

When the woman mentioned above claimed that she had an affair with Hybels, the Willow Creek Association Board voted not to conduct an investigation.  Nancy Ortberg and several other Christian leaders resigned from the board in protest … which was their right.

But once they resigned … in my view … they forfeited their right to have any further input into the Hybels situation.

The Ortbergs were no longer Willow employees nor church members.  They may have kept some personal ties, but they officially severed ties with the church.  And as a founding staff member from Willow once taught me, “The way you leave is the way you’ll be remembered.”

When the elders decided to investigate Hybels internally, The Group evidently relinquished control of the situation.

But then Hybels was exonerated, not once, but twice.

But The Group did not agree with the process used … and presumably not the conclusions reached.

In fact, according to Bill Hybels:

“Unfortunately, it has become clear that when the woman retracted her story, the group of former staff members who brought the original allegation then began to reach out to women who are or who have been a part of Willow, asking if any of them have ever had an uncomfortable interaction with me. Without mentioning the woman’s full retraction, they told women that I had an inappropriate relationship that Willow’s Elders had covered up, and they invited the women to share any negative experiences of their own.”

They have now escalated their attacks against Willow’s elders and Hybels himself, to the point that Hybels is convinced they are colluding to destroy his reputation.  Hybels told the Chicago Tribune:

“This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It’s time that gets identified.  I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled … for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false.  There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”

Hybels then told his congregation: “The lies you read about in the Tribune article are the tools this group is using to try to keep me from ending my tenure here at Willow with my reputation intact.  Many of these alleged incidents purportedly took place more than [20] years ago. The fact that they have been dredged up now and assembled in a calculated way demonstrates the determination of this group to do as much damage as they possibly can.”

I’m trying to get my head around why a leader like John Ortberg … who was Hybels’ ministry colleague and friend … would do something like this.

The following questions are based purely on speculation:

*Did he and Bill fall out personally when they were both at Willow?  Hybels evidently is not an easy man to work for.

*Did Ortberg secretly hope that he would be named Hybels’ successor?

*Does he view himself as the leader of a rival movement to Willow Creek?

*Has he become a public supporter of the #MeToo Movement, especially inside Christian churches?

*Does he know something from his time at Willow about the way the board protects Hybels regardless of any mistakes he’s made?

*Does Ortberg believe he is the best person possible to represent some of Hybels’ accusers?

*Does he really want Hybels to be exposed so he can repent and be restored?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and Ortberg may not know the answers, either.  He was recently quoted as saying, “This information came to us in a way that was unlooked for, unwanted, and it put us in a terrible situation.”

But a more likely possibility is that when Ortberg took his initial public stand against the elders and Hybels himself, he has tried ever since to show that he’s right and the leaders at Willow are wrong.

In other words, this conflict has degraded into winners and losers.

And if Hybels is declared innocent of all charges, that makes The Group look foolish, if not bad … causing some people to wonder if they’re guilty of fostering division and slander.

At this point, I’d like to share my own story briefly.

Like Hybels, I am now nearing the age of retirement.  I dreamed of retiring while still a pastor.

But in December 2009, I resigned from my pastoral tenure of 10 1/2 years at a Bay Area church because I was lied right out of the church.

I wrote a book called Church Coup if you’re interested in my story.  And I spent a lot of time in the book detailing the steps that lead a pastor to resign under duress.

My predecessor was involved in the coup.  After going into retirement for nine years, he wanted to return to the church … but first had to push me out.

He worked with the board, the associate pastor, and others to get rid of me … and their plot worked.

After I left, a nine-person team investigated the charges against me and concluded that there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

Another pastor succeeded me.  I have never spoken with him nor met him.

But I could never, ever do anything to undermine that pastor.

Why not?

*When I left the church, I left it for good.  I have never returned for any kind of service or event … and I have no plans to do so.

*The church chose its own board members without my input.  They govern the church.  I have no say in what goes on there, and it would be unethical if I did.

*If the church mistreated someone … and many of my friends eventually left in tears or in anger … I might be able to advise them on what to do, but I would never think to advise the board … nor would they want my input.

Let me state this clearly:

It is unethical for a pastor or staff member to interfere with the governance of any church they once served.

God did not appoint John Ortberg to be the elder chair or one of the elders at Willow Creek Community Church.

God appointed him to serve as pastor of a church in the Bay Area instead.  That’s where his authority lies.

He may have some moral or spiritual authority in the wider Christian community, but he has zero authority where he is not welcome.

And his ideas and counsel are not wanted by Willow’s elders.

The most breathtaking part of this entire story are the demands that The Group made to the elders at Willow.  This is from the WC website:

“The two couples made specific demands outlining how they wanted the investigation to unfold and the control that they wanted to have—demands that our Elders deemed unreasonable and unbiblical. These demands included the following:

  • These couples (non–Willow members) would approve the choice of the investigator.
  • The investigation would run the full course of Bill’s adulthood (from 18 years old and ongoing).
  • These couples would be able to choose the witnesses who were interviewed, and all people interviewed would have full indemnification.
  • The investigation reports would all be public regardless of the outcome.
  • These couples would insist that there be a public admission of anything that they (not the investigator or the Elders) deemed inappropriate.”

When my wife reviewed the story the other night, she asked me this question: “Who do the Ortbergs think they are?”

Hybels has been thoroughly investigated twice.  He has been exonerated both times.  Why would Willow’s elders then turn over an investigation to people who seem to want Hybels’ scalp?

The elders of Willow have spoken unanimously.  And they have shared their conclusion as to what’s really going on:

“This small group of former staff members has articulated outright to several people that they believe Bill does not deserve to finish his ministry tenure at Willow well, despite the thorough and conscientious investigative process that has cleared his name. It has become clear to us that they have decided to spread this sentiment through rumors and now through the media. They aggressively shopped the story to multiple media outlets. These actions fail to live up to biblical standards, and they have caused much pain for many people. We have deep sadness over the broken relationships with people we have respected and people we love. We are grieved for Bill and his family. After 42 years of faithfully pastoring you and me, our congregation, and after his family giving sacrificially, this has been painful beyond words for them.”

I’m sure there are people who do not like or agree with their verdict, but it’s time to accept it and for everyone to go home and focus on their own ministries.

From my vantage point … and I could be reading matters wrong … it looks like The Group … which includes Ortberg … is doing everything they can to get Hybels fired.

Let Bill Hybels serve out his last six months in peace.

If Hybels has been lying, the Lord will deal with him … either in this life, or the next life.

If the elders engaged in a cover-up, let God deal with them as well.

God is the Ultimate Judge.  He will right any wrongs.

In fact, God only uses imperfect people, including pastors, elders, staff members, and investigators.

And the longer this controversy goes on, the wider and deeper the breach will become in the body of Christ.

As Paul asked the Corinthians:

Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be cheated?  Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.  I Corinthians 6:7-8

For the sake of the gospel and the advancement of Christ’s church … please, let it go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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